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Perks Bring D.A. Probe at College

Times Staff Writers

Officials at Compton Community College have spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars in the last four years on contracts that they refuse to explain, while receiving costly perks not commonly available to directors of much larger districts.

The expenditures include at least $868,000 to a community organization that the board won’t account for, personal credit card accounts and free cars for board members that some keep overnight, and a college-funded trip for the school’s president to the 2000 Olympics in Australia. The financial transactions are detailed in copies of contracts, payments, credit card records and other college documents obtained by The Times.

The spending, which has come to light as community colleges like Compton struggle to cope with a state budget crisis, has outraged some faculty members. It also has drawn the attention of prosecutors. Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley is reviewing the college’s finances and management to determine whether a criminal investigation is warranted, said spokesman Joseph Scott.

“Abuses of our limited funds continue unabated,” an English faculty member, James Johnson, co-president of the Compton Community College Federation of Employees, wrote this spring in a letter to the district attorney.

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He added that “abuse of public funds is far greater at the college” than at Compton’s city government, where three City Council members and the city manager were indicted in February on felony charges of misusing public funds, including credit cards.

College spokesman Stan Myles said the college would not respond to questions on matters that may be under review by prosecutors. Myles added: “As long as you’re looking for negative things, you’re not going to get a response.”

Other college officials have declined to comment in any detail, saying that The Times is racist and targets Compton for scrutiny because of its minority population.

One of the largest unexplained outlays of public funds under review by prosecutors involves a program called Familias en Progreso, which, according to its contract, operated between 1999 and 2002.

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According to the contract, Familias en Progreso was supposed to help the college run a community sports program for which participants would get college credit. By boosting enrollment through the program, the college would gain state education funds, which are allocated on the basis of attendance.

The Times obtained copies of 40 college checks paid to Familias en Progreso between 1998 and 2002, totaling $868,000.

Familias’ Inglewood business office has been vacated. Its top officials could not be located by The Times. Checks from the college to Familias for unspecified services were addressed to another Inglewood address -- a house whose longtime owner told The Times he had never heard of Familias or the college.

College officials did not respond to requests for a full accounting of how the dollars were spent. Myles said, “We had it for a while, and it was terminated a couple of years ago. I’m not sure what it did.” Board President Kent Swift, a trustee since 1991, said: “I’m trying to find out myself what the program did, but I don’t have an answer yet.”

Board member Ignacio Pena also said he knew little about the program; he referred reporters to the college administration. “It was there before I got there” in 1991, he said.

But photocopies of six college checks totaling $125,000 that had been made out to Familias en Progreso, along with supporting documents, indicate Pena picked up the checks. He signed for them between December 1999 and April 2001.

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Trail of Checks Unclear

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Pena acknowledged he had picked up the checks, saying he had done so at the request of Familias en Progreso because the organization was not being paid on time by the college. Pena said he could not recall who from the organization had asked him to collect the checks or to whom he had given the checks afterward.

Other checks were picked up by Guadalupe Espitia and Roberto Bayardo, Familias staff members who the college said can no longer be located.

The Times could not locate Bayardo, either. His last address was listed at Pena’s house, according to a search of public records. “That’s some type of mistake,” Pena said in a recent interview.

But Espitia, who quit working for Familias in the spring of 2002, told The Times that she had given the Familias checks that she had picked up from the college to Pena. Photocopies of college records indicate that seven checks were picked up by Espitia in 2001 and 2002, totaling $121,191. Espitia also said that Pena had hired her, and that Pena was the head of Familias en Progreso. She said she had seen Bayardo only two or three times.

Pena said Espitia had been mistaken: He had not hired Espitia and had not directed Familias. Pena acknowledged that Espitia had delivered the college checks for Familias to his office, but said that other representatives from Familias in turn had picked up the checks from him.

Besides their expenditures on Familias, top college officials have repeatedly spent money on themselves or their close associates, according to copies of college documents -- including credit card receipts, contracts and logs of the college’s car fleet.

The five Compton College board members are nominally part-time, receiving stipends of $218 per month plus health and welfare benefits worth a few thousand dollars a year. The district, comprising one college with 7,800 students, is one of the smaller districts in the state. But perks approved by the current board are worth tens of thousands of dollars a year -- far more than benefits offered to board members at much larger districts.

They include:

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* Chrysler 300M sedans leased by the college; some board members take the cars home and use them for personal business.

* College credit cards. In violation of rules set by the college’s own auditors, board members have used the cards to take cash advances, some inside gambling casinos.

* Paid assistants and thousands of dollars in discretionary funds whose limits are unclear, according to board minutes, agendas and e-mails.

College President Ulis Williams enjoyed one substantial benefit as well, spending $7,555 of the college’s money to attend the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Board members said their perks and those such as the trip by Williams, a gold medalist in track in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, had clearly been beneficial to the college. Board member Carl Robinson said Williams had made important contacts with Olympics officials and other prominent sports figures who could help the college’s athletic programs.

College spokesman Myles said Williams would not comment on his trip.

Board members also insisted that the college cars were available to any college teacher or staff member for school business.

Board members said during an October 2000 meeting, however, that they would be heavy users of the cars in their role as “advocates with prospective students and external constituents,” according to the meeting’s minutes. At that time, the board specifically requested that each car come with a multi-disc CD player and leather seats.

Willie O. Jones, elected in 2002, is the only current member who was not on the board when the cars were approved. Members Swift and Pena have served since 1991, Robinson since 1980, and Stephen Randle since 1999.

Since the cars were delivered in late 2000, faculty representatives said, the cars apparently have been used only by board members. “They are not available to faculty,” said Janice Blume, a member of the faculty senate and treasurer of the federation, the union that represents faculty members and certificated employees.

Times reporters saw the cars parked at the homes of three board members, Pena, Randle and Jones, during late night and early morning hours. Pena and Robinson said they often keep the cars overnight but return them to the college periodically. Approached at his home, Jones referred questions to the college’s administration.

A reporter saw Pena’s son leave the family’s house in a college car. “He had to go to the store,” Pena later explained.

Board president Swift said he had taken the car home only briefly but often drives the college car. His own car, a 1989 BMW, is beaten up and could be an embarrassment at official functions, he said. “When you’re representing the college, you want to make a good impression,” Swift said.

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Out-of-Town Use

Board members also used the cars for out-of-town travel. On New Year’s Eve 2000, for instance, Robinson and his wife were in a college car in Las Vegas when they got into an accident. The Robinsons were turning into the Stratosphere casino on the Las Vegas Strip when they collided with another car about 1 p.m., according to a police accident report.

Carl Robinson said that at the time he and his wife were going to lunch at the Stratosphere. He said he had been meeting with officials at a community college in Las Vegas about a dental hygiene program he hoped to duplicate in Compton.

Robinson’s accident cost the college, which had insured the car, $5,866.59, court and college insurance records show.

Robinson said he typically keeps the car overnight at his house four or five nights a week as part of an agreement between the college and his employer, the city of Compton, where he works under contract as a juvenile intervention specialist.

According to a copy of a Feb. 8, 2001, letter obtained by The Times, the city’s manager of juvenile behavior health services thanked the college “for allowing Mr. Robinson the use of an automobile while performing his duties.” Without the college car, “the costs for running the program would have been astronomical,” the official wrote.

Despite the cars at the board’s disposal, it decided in November 2000 to rent additional cars for the Compton and Lynwood Christmas parades -- three Mustangs, three BMWs and a Camaro Z28. Total cost: $2,135.

In an interview, Robinson explained: “We don’t have convertibles.”

Records show board members repeatedly used college-issued credit cards for personal cash advances as well, despite a policy prohibiting such use.

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Casino Withdrawals

Robinson on several occasions used his college credit card to obtain cash in gambling casinos, credit card records show. He did so on two occasions in the spring of 2001 at the Hustler Casino in Gardena, drawing advances and fees totaling $538.98. In addition, Robinson also obtained cash at other casinos on five occasions, totaling more than $700.

Robinson acknowledged having used the card for personal transactions, but emphasized that he had reimbursed the college. Unlike other board members, Robinson paid his credit card bills directly. “I pay my own bill,” he said. “I will not allow the college to pay one dime.”

His account was confirmed by Benjamin Lett, the college’s vice president of business affairs.

Records show that Randle also had drawn cash with his college card. In 2001, he had cash advances in four different months, totaling $1,300 plus fees. When asked about the advances, Randle said the information was “not accurate,” but he declined to specify the inaccuracy. The Times could not ascertain whether he had paid the money back.

By comparison, board members at the Los Angeles Community College District, which is 12 times the size of Compton, receive no cars and no credit cards. Trustees of Pasadena City College also serve without the cars, credit cards and other perks available to Compton board members. The Pasadena trustees are paid $400 a month, with medical insurance.

Questions about the Compton board’s spending, however, involve more than cars and credit cards.

A whistle-blower lawsuit filed by the college’s former personnel director, which could go to trial this year, alleges that politicians and their families have routinely been given contracts and that college employees have been paid for work on political campaigns.

Another contract, not addressed in the suit, has gone to board member Pena’s brother. Carlos Pena has received a $3,000-per-month consultant’s fee since at least 2001. The deal was renewed in July, board records show. Pena placed the construction and maintenance contract on the board agenda himself and voted for it. It was approved, 3-2, with Swift and Jones opposing it.

“This blatant act of nepotism is illegal and must be voided immediately,” wrote Lawrence Rosenzweig, an attorney for the college employees union, in a July 14 letter to a Pasadena lawyer who represents the college. “Mr. Pena is using his position as board trustee to funnel business to his brother.” The contract remains in effect.

Pena defended the contract, saying, “My brother is more qualified than many people who have gotten millions” from the college.

In recent months, faculty members -- faced with budget cuts, possible layoffs and supply shortages -- have become more vocal in protesting board members’ spending practices. In March, the faculty held a vote of no-confidence in the college president and the board, citing corruption and financial mismanagement.

“We don’t even have blackboards or working heating and cooling systems, while they keep hiring their cronies and draining resources incessantly,” said Blume, the union treasurer. “That’s why we’re angry.”


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